REVIEW: Landline

18 07 2017

Sundance Film Festival

Gillian Robespierre’s “Landline” prominently features a 1995 speech where Hillary Clinton claims, “However different we may appear, there is far more that unites us than divides us.” Unlike many time capsule items in the film — CD listening stations at music stores, Blockbuster Video, payphones, floppy disks — 5this line doesn’t feel like it’s just been lifted out of a BuzzFeed listicle about “25 Things You’d Only Know If You Were Alive in 1995.” It’s a dictum simple to say yet difficult to practice, as shown by the family in the film.

Robespierre and co-writer Elisabeth Holm craft an indelible portrait of the women in the Jacobs family, each at different life stages yet all struggling to feel the love with important companions. Matriarch Pat (Edie Falco) puts so much effort into maintaining family structure and function that her relationships have frayed with everyone, especially her charming but wishy-washy husband Alan (John Turturro). Adult daughter Dana (Jenny Slate) waffles on a marital commitment to fiancé Ben (Jay Duplass), even going to the extent of acting out an alter ego named “Bedelia” that indulges her pent-up desires. Teenage daughter Ali (Abby Quinn) takes to surrounding herself with drugs and dancing to dull her disinterest with the traditional roadmap laid out ahead of her.

If “Obvious Child” showcased that Robespierre could helm a character study, then “Landline” exhibits her talent with an ensemble piece. There are many complicated relationships to juggle in the film, each of which she handles with specificity and tenacity. (On a personal note, I found the tension between Dana and Ali spot on; as someone with a much younger sibling, Dana’s negotiation between being a quasi-parent and friend resonated tremendously.)

Robespierre is not afraid to have the tough, awkward conversations – and then dwell in the messy resolution, or lack thereof. For all the times I worried in the first 30 minutes that the film would be little more than a nostalgia-dripping scrapbook, she met them with incisive observations about how difficult it can be to connect with the people closest to us. B+

NOTE: A portion of this review ran as a part of my coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival for Movie Mezzanine.

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REVIEW: Obvious Child

27 06 2014

Obvious ChildRiverRun Film Festival

If Woody Allen and Joan Rivers ever had a love child, it would probably sound a whole lot like Jenny Slate’s Donna Stern in “Obvious Child.”  This stand-up comedian proves to be a magnet for unfortunate events – losing her job and her boyfriend in rapid succession – and handles it with indefatigable humor, both macabre and self-deprecating.  Slate refashions a best friend archetype into a leading lady, and it works marvelously.

Donna might not work quite as well as a character had she not appeared in a film with the refreshing candor of writer/director Gillian Robespierre.  Pleasant interactions at a bar lead Donna into the bedroom with the charming Max (Jake Lacy, recognizable to fans of the last season of “The Office”) … but what grows inside her isn’t love or desire for a relationship.

It’s a baby, one thing Donna knows she can’t handle in her crazy life.  So she does what plenty of women across the country do: signs up to get an abortion.  In the spirit of stand-up, Donna and the film tackle the issue head-on.  She even incorporates it into her routine on stage, not to poke fun at it but to use humor as a vehicle to really explore the way we feel about abortion.  The real injustice, Robespierre seems to argue, is the way we traipse around the issue when we talk about it.

“Obvious Child” plays out like a feminist take on “Knocked Up,” another film that explores the consequences of unplanned pregnancy with poignant honesty.  All the characters speak with such refreshing candor, particularly about what it means to be a woman both physically and emotionally.  As Donna’s confidante and roommate Nellie, Gaby Hoffman brings down the house with her free spirit and untamed tongue.

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